Revolutionary Measures

Will the FBI take a bite out of Apple?

Apple has built itself into the largest quoted company in the world by being different. From the early days of the Macintosh computer, through the iconic iMac and onto the iPod, iPad and iPhone, its products have challenged the orthodox approach with a combination of design and features.

English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Appl...

It has extended this into the virtual world. Unlike competitors such as Google and Facebook, which have built businesses essentially based on collecting and selling personal data to advertisers, Apple has positioned itself as a champion of privacy. In a speech in 2015 CEO Tim Cook stated, “We believe the customer should be in control of their own information.

This approach extends to protecting personal information stored on Apple devices and within iCloud. All iPhones and iPads are encrypted by default, meaning that even Apple itself cannot access the data on them. This obviously gives an unprecedented layer of protection for personal data, which has been particularly welcomed after Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread snooping by intelligence services on electronic communications.

However protecting normal citizens against hackers, criminals and terrorists is one thing, but what happens when the iPhone in question actually belongs to a terrorist? This is the current case, being hotly debated in the media and on social media. Following the San Bernadino terrorist shootings last year, the FBI recovered one of the perpetrator’s iPhones. Obviously this is locked with a 4 digit passcode, and simply cycling through all possible combinations is impossible – after a number of failed tries iPhones are programmed to erase all data to combat this type of brute force attack.

Consequently, the FBI has asked Apple to help, removing the erase feature from this specific phone and allowing it to try and guess the password electronically, rather than having to type in the potential 10,000 combinations. It has refused, rejecting a court order and issuing an open letter stating that it will not ‘hack itself’ and create an insecure back door into its products that could be exploited by others.

In many ways Apple has a point – even without the Snowden revelations, governments have a poor record of keeping backdoors safe. This was demonstrated by the US Transportation Security Administration, which mandated that all luggage manufacturers created a skeleton key that could be used to open any suitcase. A photo of the master key was accidentally printed in the Washington Post, allowing criminals to model and create it using 3D printers.

At the same time, the FBI is adamant that it is not asking for access to the backdoor itself – it says it is happy for Apple to disable the erase feature itself and provide access to the data, without telling the Feds how it was done. Essentially Apple is putting itself above the law, which has potentially chilling ramifications given its size, number of users and global reach. It isn’t the plucky underdog it was when the Mac first went up against the PC.

The high profile nature of the case, and the fact that it involves a proven terrorist further complicates matters – most right-thinking people would want to help the government in this scenario. Perhaps the wisest words have come from Bill Gates, who is calling for a wider debate on the balance between privacy and accessibility, irrespective of the case in hand.

As I’ve said before, a reputation for protecting user information is a central part of the Apple brand – and is only becoming more important as the company branches into payments (Apple Pay) and personal health data. Therefore its principled stance makes perfect sense from a marketing point of view. It may well have to eventually comply in some way, but it will have lived up to its promise to fight for privacy, keeping the rest of its community happy, and consequently protected its brand. However what the whole case shows is that we need a grown-up, rational debate about who has access to our personal data, under what circumstances and how they can access it.

February 24, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

James Bond, public relations and the drive for increased surveillance

I read recently that government ministers spend over a quarter of their time on public relations or similar activities. That’s not surprising given they face a combination of an ever more cynical electorate, lobbyists, pressure groups, opposition MPs and, of course, their own backbenchers.

Obviously everyone thinks they have an idea about the bad side of government spin, with its mixture of cunning, bullying and calling in favours (as exemplified by Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It). But increasingly PR is necessary to try to educate and convince the press and public about the merits of a decision, in order to gain the support it needs.

The perfect case in point is the current debate on the Investigatory Powers Bill, a draft of which is being published this week. This aims to strengthen the capabilities of the security services to detect and foil crime. However in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations concerning the scale of current surveillance technology, and how it is used, there is widespread worry about what new legislation will enable the security services to do.

A model of the GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham

In the balance between privacy and law enforcement, where do you draw the line? For example, the draft bill will compel Internet Service Providers to retain a full record of your online activity for 12 months, in case they are needed for investigations. The vast majority of us would support their use against terrorists, paedophiles and organised crime, but the fact that a record of all of our surfing is stored and can potentially be accessed by law enforcement officers does scare and worry people.

Because of this, there has been an unprecedented campaign to win over the public. The Times was given high level access to Britain’s spy agencies, from GCHQ to MI5 and MI6, for example. This enabled those backing the bill to get their message across that they are foiling plots aimed at the UK on a regular basis and that without changes to the law it is only a matter of time before something slips through the net.

At the same time the anti-campaign has received backing from an unlikely corner – James Bond himself. The latest Bond movie, Spectre, features the normal array of international bad guys plotting to take over the world. But the key twist (spoiler alert) is that they want to do this by gaining access to the surveillance systems of the security services around the world – even to the extent of bankrolling a new UK security service building. Of course, in the end their evil plot is defeated, but the interesting point is that C, the new head of British joint intelligence, is a bad guy, in league with the chief villain himself. Hardly the ringing endorsement of increased surveillance that the public would expect – and perhaps politicians backing the bill were hoping for.

With the bill itself just published, expect the debate to rage on – with public relations a key tactic used by both sides to put their case. Though what the government and security services can do to top James Bond will be an interesting challenge……

November 4, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Social networks – command and control centres for terrorists?

It wasn’t that long ago that the only spies in the public eye were James Bond and prominent Cold War defectors. But over recent years high-ranking intelligence chiefs have stepped out of the shadows to appear in public, write books and give interviews. They’ll be inviting the public to tour MI5 or the Pentagon next. It all seems a bit counter-intuitive as I’d have thought keeping a low profile was one of the key skills that intelligence agencies were looking for.

Some of the satellite dishes at GCHQ Bude, in ...

The latest spy to break cover is Robert Hannigan, the new head of GCHQ. In an interview with the Financial Times to mark starting in his new role he lambasted social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, calling them “command-and-control networks for terrorists and criminals.” One of his key concerns is the spread of encryption techniques on common mobile phone operating systems – both Apple and Google have recently made encryption a standard feature that users can opt-out of rather than having to opt-in to use.

This is obviously good for privacy, but bad for those looking to monitor the activities of terrorist cells. In his article Hannigan issued a plea for more openness and collaboration between tech companies and the security services.

But in my opinion he’s overlooking two major factors. Firstly, demonising social media is a bit like criticising the telephone network for being used to plan a bank robbery. It is, as tech companies claim, an agnostic platform. If the police suspect a crime is being committed (or planned) there are processes in place to work with a social network to assist them in their enquiries. Normal people don’t see Facebook as a threat to their safety – though, given what some seem happy to share online, perhaps they should.

And secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is a lack of trust in the security services. The revelations of Edward Snowden showed, as many suspected, that our online activities are being spied on. Recent revelations about police being able to access the telephone records of journalists without needing a warrant using Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) legislation just add to this.

The trouble with the whole debate about online privacy is that it is becoming increasingly polarised. On the one hand social networks support their ‘free’ business model by collecting and selling data on the interests of their users, allowing them to be targeted with ads. Then at the other end of the spectrum the security services are demanding more access to the very same data. The people in the middle are the users, the vast majority of whom have no idea of how much they are being tracked when they go about their business online. What is needed is more education so that it is clearer about how they can legitimately protect themselves online, rather than both sides scaremongering about the other. Terrorism is a threat to a free internet, but equally so is draconian, untargeted snooping by intelligence agencies and the erosion of user privacy by the networks that we rely on.

 

November 5, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stop the presses?

Since the rise of the internet, there have been plenty of people predicting the steady decline of mainstream journalism. As people consume more content online they are unwilling to pay either to buy newspapers or to access firewalled content, except for specialist titles such as the Financial Times or The Economist. The result? A huge drop in the number of journalists employed in the newspaper industry – in the US numbers have dropped from over 55,000 in 1990 to under 40,000 today.

2007 United Kingdom floods

However, we are actually consuming as much, if not more, news than ever before. Much of this is in different forms, such as via social media or through news videos. The latest Pew Research Centre State of the News Media report found that a third of Americans now watch news videos online, rising to half in the 18-29 demographic. There’s also been an explosion in the number of digital news firms, creating 5,000 US jobs.

What’s interesting is that these companies are evolving fast. Rather than simply competing with traditional news sources by rehashing stories (or putting out controversial click bait headlines in the case of sites like BuzzFeed), they are investing in original content. Star journalists are being poached from top newspapers, lured by the opportunity to write longer articles without daily deadlines and with greater editorial freedom. Part of this growth is financial – launching a credible digital news site is relatively cheap, around $5m in the US for example.

And the Pew report finds that consumers are getting more involved in the news. 7% of Americans have posted their own news video to a social network or established media outlet and half of social media users share or comment on articles.

The difficulty for traditional publications is two fold – they are still running a print newspaper which has huge fixed costs, while consumers are much less loyal. They’ll click on a link on social media, irrespective of (or not even knowing) its source and then, once they’ve read it, leave the site without necessarily checking out other stories. In the UK the picture is skewed by the credibility and power of the BBC, which has successfully embraced the digital world, helped by its guaranteed funding through the licence fee.

So, what can newspapers do to evolve and change? From what I can see they have five options:

1              Put up a paywall
Given that people spend money on newspapers, why shouldn’t they pay for online content? Hence the rise in paywalls. However with a fickle readership, getting people to commit requires content that they truly can’t get anywhere else, which in turn necessitates investment in journalism, or extras such as Premiership goals in the case of The Sun. It works when the content is original enough or the subscription deal is compelling. On the downside paywalled content is a lot more difficult to share socially, so the overall reach of the title drops as well.

2              Make a go of advertising
Sounds easy – write good stories and advertising will flood in, both in print and online. In theory yes, but we’re back to the fickle readership and the increased competition for advertising pounds. Only those publications that really differentiate themselves (such as the Daily Mail and The Guardian) have grown their online audience enough to deliver a strong advertising revenue. In the print world, the Evening Standard has been able to transition from a paid for to free model, but it has been helped by having an owner with deep pockets.

3              Find a sugar daddy
With newspapers suddenly cheap, there’s been a rush of billionaires investing in them, either as a vanity project, something more sinister or simply because they can turn them around. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, bought the Washington Post, the Boston Globe is now owned by Liverpool FC owner John Henry and Warren Buffett has purchased a whole stable of titles. Even the aforementioned Evening Standard is owned by billionaire Evgeny Lebedev.

4              Become a brand
If you can build a strong reputation for content, you may be able to transform yourself into a global brand. That’s the aim of The Guardian, which has made its name around the world by breaking stories such as Edward Snowden’s revelations. At a more local level it explains the rush of local newspaper groups into local TV, enabling them to share resources and cross-promote.

5              Get someone to write it for you – for nothing
Blog-based sites such as Mashable and the Huffington Post started out without much in the way of original content, but built themselves on contributed blogs. They’ve now expanded to create many more of their own stories, but the model – attracting interesting, informed bloggers looking for the oxygen of publicity – still works equally well on other sites. Both sides benefit, so provided the content is good it adds to a site’s appeal.

Most newspapers have looked at all five of these ideas (some all at the same time), but with varying degrees of success. However, as the Pew report shows, journalism can flourish in the digital age – it just may not be appearing in traditional media outlets.

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April 2, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Paranoid Android

This is not a good time for the paranoid to be on the internet. In the wake of the first set of revelations from Edward Snowden, more is emerging about the extent of online eavesdropping by the security services on both sides of the Atlantic. According to Snowden British intelligence agency GCHQ showed off the ability to monitor YouTube video views, Facebook ‘likes’ and Blogger visits in real-time to its US colleagues back in 2012. The programme, named Squeaky Dolphin, even had its own logo (though looking at the design, I don’t think the spies should give up their day jobs quite yet).

Angry Birds

Even worse, spooks have been accessing smartphone data while people play Angry Birds, enabling them to get hold of user’s personal information. Presumably the game was picked due to its global popularity, rather than being a cunning ruse by GCHQ and the NSA to enable staffs to play it during work time.

And in an unrelated story, a security company has found an internet-enabled fridge that has been hacked and is now sending spam. This is particularly worrying given the rise of the Internet of Things, with more and more devices and appliances around us connected to the web. Essentially each of these is a small, but powerful computer, often without the same level of security and protection than you see on a PC or tablet. Being able to hijack a fridge is one thing, but as the Internet of Things spreads, more sinister opportunities arise – remotely controlling smart cars or switching on and off hundreds of air conditioners to bring down a power grid are all possibilities.

Taking these stories together leads to two concerns in my mind. Firstly, internet privacy. I think most people understand the need to collect information on identified threats to public safety, provided due legal process has been followed. What Snowden seems to have uncovered is technological spying that has gone mad – exactly what you’d expect if you put a large bunch of very intelligent geeks in a room, give them all the resources they need and exonerate them from any qualms of conscience by saying it is in the national interest. So what happens to information that is found online that is not linked to terrorism but minor, non-criminal misdemeanours? GPS data that shows an MP was with his mistress when he should have been elsewhere or evidence of unsavoury (but not illegal) internet activities for example. The nature of technology means this information is unlikely to disappear, but will sit on servers somewhere, with no guarantee that it won’t be pulled out in the future.

Secondly, security concerns have the ability to derail the Internet of Things. As Google’s recent purchase of Nest shows, market momentum is increasing. But if people add the worry of security issues to privacy concerns they are less likely to embrace the opportunities that the Internet of Things offers when it comes to increased efficiency and energy saving. After all, I don’t want GCHQ to know what’s in my fridge – or burglars to know when I’m away on holiday.

There’s been a lot of talk from politicians about reining in the security services and that needs to be formalised to reassure the law-abiding – instead of enabling spying, the tech industry should be focusing its intelligence on improving the actual security of the devices and applications that control our lives.

 

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January 29, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How much is your personal data worth?

privacy.JPG

At a time when governments snooping on communications data is top of the news agenda it is time for people to realise exactly how much of their private information is out there on the internet. From the websites you’ve visited to the people you are friendly with on Facebook all of this data is used to try and sell you goods and services in increasingly clever ways. Essentially it is the price of free – sites like Facebook don’t charge you to join, and providing an infrastructure for billions of users doesn’t come cheap.

And generally consumers value convenience over security. Hence the increase in sites that let you sign in with your Facebook, Twitter or Google IDs, adding to the data being held about you, tracking your online movements. Of course people have the option to register separately for these sites, but the upfront cost in time of filling in more forms puts most of us off.

Adding in mobile, location-based data adds an extra dimension as companies can see broadly where you were when you looked at a particular page. So marketers know that you were standing outside Starbucks when you checked where the nearest Costa was.

So how much is this data worth to businesses? Hundreds of pounds? Err, no. According to the Financial Times, the average person’s data retails for less than a dollar. Having filled in its nifty online calculator I didn’t even make 50 cents – but then I’m not about to give birth, get married or have a long term (lucrative) health condition. Try the test for yourself on the FT website.

As the PRISM scandal has shown, it isn’t just businesses that want to track your online behaviour. Nine internet companies, including Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Google were pinpointed as revealing user data to the National Security Agency.

In the wake of the scandal and renewed interest by consumers in protecting their privacy, the internet industry needs to look at how it gains permission, collects information and shares personal data. Social networks and the internet itself are now mass market – they have crossed the chasm and are no longer populated solely by early adopters and teenagers with a relaxed attitude to sharing their personal information (even if it lands them in hot water down the line). Default settings need to be for stronger privacy settings (rather than the minimum), nudging people into being more secure with their data if companies are to regain trust. Of course, we’re not going to stop using Facebook and Google – but it would be a smart move (and a potential differentiator) for these companies to take a stand and make it simpler for us to protect our privacy online. Even if our data is only worth 38 cents.

June 19, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment